My forthcoming book, The Modern Savage, comes out January 6. The book attempts to expose the cruelty that prevails on small, non-industrial, “humane” farms much in the way that Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation exposed the cruelty that prevails on factory farms.
Advance reviews have been optimistic. Peter Singer writes, “McWilliams has issued a powerful challenge to the ‘compassionate omnivore’ movement. The Modern Savage is a book that everyone concerned about food, animals and the environment should read.” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson writes, “I think James McWilliams is far and away the single best writer the vegans have so far produced…One of the most intelligent books I have ever read. His is a powerful voice that will resonate far beyond those interested in animal rights.” Sherry Colb, of Cornell Law School, says, “James McWilliams accomplishes something at once simple and profound.” Paul Shapiro, of HSUS, writes, “James McWilliams ably demonstrates that we’ve often underestimated the mental lives of farm animals, and that we need to start taking their interests more seriously. He doesn’t skirt tough issues nor does he take positions based on what may be popular at the time. Such a moral accounting would lead to a revolution in both how we produce food and what food we eat.”
Many of the ideas I develop in the book originated here, on this blog, in conversation with you. If you intend to buy the book, or buy extras for friends, please do so here. My publisher tells me the more pre-orders the better. Please also take the time to spread the message via social media.
Friends, I poured it all into this book. For you, I am deeply grateful.
PS: all those who pre-order more than one book will get a free subscription to The Pitchfork.
A few days ago I wrote about the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and animal agriculture. The gist of the piece was that there’s so much animal flesh to keep healthy that eating animals is implicit support for an industry that already makes too much money over-medicating humans.
Since then, I’ve realized there’s another angle to this topic, one that’s more sinister, one that I missed. An article on The Cattle Site reveals that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in more than antibiotics and vaccines. It’s also using animal welfare as a pretext to market new drugs for farm animals.
Leading the charge to sell drugs that will create a calmer cow is Merck. Recently the company announced the launch of “Creating Connections.” According to The Cattle Site, it’s “a new program designed to help producers better understand cattle behavior and use that knowledge to employ strategies that can reduce stress, improve reproduction and foster stronger immune responses.”
In other words, Merck has found a way to exploit welfare washing for profit. The idea here is that you drug the beasts into a stupor so they don’t express feelings of distress and in turn—the real motive—cooperate with their executioners. This is a tactic that makes life easier for ranchers and meatpacking plant workers while making Merck look like it’s in league with the Humane Society as a steward of animals.
But it’s a bad joke. The piece explains, “Since calmer cattle are easier to examine, diagnose, treat and move, the techniques shared through Creating Connections will help make iteasier for producers to improve the health of their herds.”
As is to be expected, asinine blather has poured forth to justify these happy drugs. “The behavior of cattle – how they interact with each other and with people – can be shaped by positive interactions with caregivers, and tell us a tremendous amount about how cattle are feeling,” said Tom Noffsinger, D.V.M., a consulting feedyard veterinarian well known for his work on low-stress cattle handling practices.
It’s not about lowering stress, but hiding it. You hook cows’ udders to milk pumping machines, send their babies to the meat counter as veal chops, and turn them into hamburger when production declines. But because you have drugged the cows into oblivion they don’t seem to mind, and so you can work more efficiency, not to mention less burdened by the suspicion that you’re doing something very wrong.
But come on. If it’s welfare that we’re really concerned about, here’s something to consider: don’t bring these creatures into existence in the first place. There will be no suffering to medicate if you just use your resources to grow flora rather than fauna. Otherwise, spare us the welfare talk.
Nobody is really that stupid.
I had an interesting conversation with my friend Bob the philosopher the other day. When I talk to philosophers, I realize how much I love philosophical thought. But I also realize that, much as you might rather coo-coo over someone else’s adorable baby rather than have one of you own, I’m glad I’m not an actual philosopher. I suspect I’d fall into a cycle of premise questioning that would suck me into an abyss.
But anyways. We talked about the meaning of life. What gives life meaning? There’s nothing ironic or tongue-in-cheek about this question when you discuss it with a real philosopher. Bob raised an idea that has stuck with me. He explained that many philosophers posit that life is given meaning by the experience of pleasure. That is, our sense that life has worth is rooted in the soil of subjective experiences that make us happy.
This all seems rather simple–until you think about it in terms of food. Eating makes us happy and, in this sense, eating gives us reason to find meaning in life. Meat and dairy. moreover, gives most people added pleasure. These items, from what I recall, can taste very good. I realize that committed vegans often reach a point at which animal products lose their appeal. But it’s very likely that at one point in time, these goods puts a smile on their faces.
The implications of this connection strike me as important. In an environment that fails to question the ethics of eating animals—which is to say, in most environments—there’s nothing to interrupt the conclusion that, as the saying goes, food is life. And if you include animal products as food, well then animal products are life. If eating meat becomes synonymous with a meaningful life, any attempt to disrupt the association will be met with wrath.
Two lessons to draw from this observation. First, understand the wrath. Rather than scoff at it, or get in yet another facebook fight, just be appreciative of why the call to stop eating animals sends so many people into fits of apoplexy. Second, do not stop delivering the message that we must stop eating animals raised for food. Too often we think it’s a matter of convincing individuals, one by one, to stop. Really, though, it’s about creating an atmosphere in which the assumption that eating animals is integral to the meaning of life is questioned.
It’s the larger culture that must be destabilized. The converts will then follow.
Please check out my latest Pacific Standard column here
When you think of the pharmaceutical industry, animal agriculture is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But, in a telling reminder of how intricate the web of agribusiness can be, a recent report claims that the global animal health market is a multi billion dollar industry. With China on the verge of sending rates of meat consumption through the roof, it’s also one that has every intention of rapidly expanding in the near future. The reason for the industry’s existence, in short, is animal agriculture (with a boost coming from companion animals).
Critical to the industry’s success are vaccines, medicated feed, and a variety of reproductive and respiratory drugs. Critics of industrial agriculture are correct to lament the connection between drugs and CAFOs. But it’s also important to remember that animals raised in smaller settings also require frequent medication for basic ailments. In my forthcoming book, The Modern Savage (which you can pre-order), I detail the extent to which small farmers rely on the animal health industry to medicate their livestock. As long as we eat animals raised for food, and as long as animals get colds and ticks and fleas, we’ll have a sector of the pharmaceutical industry that thrives on that appetite.
The world’s top animal health firms are: Zoetis (formerly Pfizer), Merck, Merial, Eli Lilly, Bayer, Boehringer, and Novartis. They are enjoying a growth rate of about 5 percent a year. One common corporate strategy is to leverage human drugs for the animal market. And, from a corporate perspective, why not? There are only 7 billion humans, but 100 billion or so farm animals. That’s a lot more flesh and bones to keep medicated.
Concerned consumers have many reasons for not wanting to support this industry. Not only are millions of animals subjected to brutal tests in order to create these drugs, but the impact of these drugs on global ecosystems is substantial. These drugs enter the environment through excrement, urine, and direct disposal. The State of Washington notes how it can all come back to us: “Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well. Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater.”
The takeaway here is this: Our choice to raise billions of animals for food requires more than land, air, and water–all of which is bad enough. So much more is hidden from us. When we eat animals we often fail to understand the how broadly the ripple effects extend. Growing plants is hardly a chemically harmless endeavor, but it’s nothing like animal ag, where every hour is pharmaceutical cocktail hour.
Nicholas Kristof has this annoying way of being the last gumshoe to arrive at the crime scene, writing about the incident as if he were the first on the scene, and delivering a completely inane verdict about what should be done to rectify the situation. This claim is especially true when it comes to his coverage of animal issues.
Yesterday he dedicated a column to the abuse of chickens confined on “cage free” farms. If you care enough about animal welfare to keep up with the relevant news regarding agribusiness you would have to be totally checked out to think that Perdue was treating its chickens well. But here came Kristof to blow the lid off the scam. Turns out “cage free” doesn’t mean squat. Turns out Perdue doesn’t give a cluck about the welfare of birds.
Well. No. Shit.
But that’s not really my problem with Kristof–nor should it be. I actually applaud him for dedicating the world’s most valuable journalistic space to the welfare of chickens. My problem comes later in the column. It comes with how he handles his “discovery.” First he shines his journalistic strobe light on severe suffering:
Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.
(Sidebar: The “farmboy” thing again. Okay, got it. You were raised on a farm in Oregon. But now you are a columnist at the world’s most prestigious paper. And that means–or it should mean–that you need to do some real thinking.)
Then note his conclusion in the face of this suffering: “I don’t know where to draw the lines.”
What? For real? Really? This is insane. On the one hand, Kristof wants to take credit for exposing the horror of what Perdue does to its birds. But on the other, he won’t even adhere to the ineffable logic of his own reporting.
Hey, Nick: when you confront the systematic and morally atrocious treatment of chickens, and when you yourself realize that this treatment is endemic, and when you reveal this reality to millions of readers, there’s a very easy line to draw: you stop eating chickens.
And you get very brave. You tell your readers to stop eating chickens. And then you call your colleague Bittman and ask him to follow suit, and then Bittman can call his friends in the foodie world, and then . . .
Well, then you’re a hero. But otherwise you’re kind of a coward.
In the field of sustainable agriculture, there’s enough magical thinking going around to cause vertigo. I hear it from purveyors of humane meat especially. They’re going to provide “cruelty-free” meat from livestock cuddled with love, pastured pork from pigs who were never harmed before their trip to the slaughterhouse for that “one bad day,” and—the perhaps the most common but least plausible of all—cattle whose manure and hoof action are going to restore global grasslands and reverse global warming.
The magical thinking continues with those who promise to end the use of fossil fuel. Solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) will take over oil and gas. Animals will help us convert sun into flesh. Led by the organic lobby, farmers will replace synthetic fertilizer with composted manure. Biological control will replace chemical insecticides, especially in the organic sector. Fuel required to truck produce will diminish to virtually nothing as local farmers stock our larders. And so on.
As an advocate for the abolition of animal agriculture, I work hard to negotiate this fantasyland of hopeful thought. I certainly do envision a day when the domestication of animals is no longer a part of modern agriculture. When I indulge that vision, I feel fairly confident that it’s doable. That it’s grounded in reality. But when I contemplate the animal rights’ endgame—the abolition of all animal suffering in every arena of life—I agree with the sentiment while quietly wondering if I’m not engaging in the same sort of fantastic thought that Allan Savory engages in when he argues that cattle can reverse global warming. “Do I really think that’s possible?”, I ask myself. In my more honest moments, I’m unsure.
While maintaining our ideals, advocates for animals must also be ready to reluctantly compromise. Not doing so lands us in the same arena of unreality that allows agrarian tricksters to tell us agriculture can provide a cruelty-free free lunch. There are no free lunches. There is no perfection in agriculture. Nothing even close. As long as we eat, there will be some level of animal suffering. We should work to reduce it without losing touch with this reality. The past is littered with magic thoughts that lasted a long time and then faded into the past, brought up as evidence of a loony generation.
That’s no fate for animal advocacy, but if we lose touch it could be.
Humans,” Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has written, “seem to take a perverse pleasure in attributing stupidity to animals when it is almost entirely a question of human ignorance.” This dictum seems especially apt with Thanksgiving arriving tomorrow. No animal, after all, has been more actively dismissed for its purported stupidity than the turkey.
The old legend about turkeys turning their gullets upward and drowning during rainstorms is reliably rehashed every November, almost as if to assuage some repressed collective doubt we have over killing 45 million maligned fowl in order to honor a tradition that, at its inception, had nothing to do with turkey.
Turkeys are neither moronic nor prone to chronic downpour suicides. In their undomesticated state they are, as the naturalist Joe Hutto has written, remarkably attentive and intelligent creatures. Hutto carefully observed a flock of wild turkeys for many months, recounting his experiences in Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey. He became particularly attached to a bird he named Turkey Boy.
“Each time I joined him,” Hutto wrote, “he greeted me with his happy dance, a brief joyful display of ducking and dodging, with wings outstretched and a frisky shake of the head like a dog with water in his ears.” Hutto, a longtime turkey hunter, was charmed, even reformed. The bird, he explained, “would jump at me and touch me lightly with his feet.”
I’m well aware that most readers will deem Hutto’s account as shamelessly anthropomorphized, if not just plain silly. I’m frequently reminded of our reluctance to fundamentally rethink the way we eat and consider the possibility that animals deserve better. I recently sat at a communal table at a vegan restaurant and listened to a jovial conversation about killing chickens and deer.At a vegan restaurant (granted, in Texas). You learn, after a time, to develop a measure of perspective on such things.
But our perspective should never omit the fact that animal scientists have documented complex patterns of turkey behavior. This is especially true when it comes to memory and geography. Wild turkeys return to the exact location of a baiting station an entire year after feeding. They scratch and sniff and circle the exact spot for that unforgettable free lunch even though the trough has been moved. Animal behaviorists agree that this return is notable. The Humane Society rightly characterizes it as “evidence of hitherto unappreciated intelligence.”
Should you relegate this impressive example of turkey recollection to mere instinct, should you convincingly reduce it to a habitual “skill” that’s pre-programmed into the birds’ mindless genetic repertoire, think again. The emotional and social lives of turkeys (wild and domesticated) speak to an active and adaptive cognition.
Turkeys need each other, and in more than just a safety-in-numbers sort of way. Researchers have found that when an individual turkey is removed from his flock, even in domesticity, he’ll squawk in obvious protest until reunited with his posse. Turkeys have a refined “language” of yelps and cackles. They mourn the death of a flock member and so acutely anticipate pain that domestic breeds have had epidemical heart attacks after watching their feathered mates take that fatal step towards Thanksgiving dinner. They clearly feel and appear to understand pain.
There’s been a heated back-and-forth on this site lately over how to categorize animals with respect to our supposed right to eat them. Is a pig objectively smarter than a dog? Well then don’t kill it. Is a pig less acculturated to human companionship than a dog? Well then kill it. These exchanges have been more than a little thought-provoking. But ultimately they get bogged down in nuanced shades of distinction while missing the transcendent question: Are animals worthy enough creatures to deserve our ultimate respect, a respect that requires that we choose not to kill them for food we don’t need?
I’m the first to admit that I have no hard scientific evidence as to why I think the answer is yes. But as a historian I at least recognize that history is marked by a discordant combination of radical change and ceaseless continuity. Acculturated practices—practices that seem as normalized as breathing—eventually change. Not only do they change, but contemporary human societies look back on these once entrenched behaviors and wonder how we ever allowed them to happen. But what never changes, what will always be, is that humans are, no matter how hard we try to conquer the world’s complexities, ultimately humbled by its mysteries.
Turkeys, for those who have taken the time to look, are mysteries. All animals are. Do they anticipate and feel pain? Do they enjoy social relationships and feel the loss of companions? Do they think, remember, and conceptualize the future? We can debate these questions forever. But the fact that there’s even room for debate suggests that we should err on the side of humility. And we might begin by giving some thought to our unthinking decision to eat turkey on Thanksgiving.
Food writers behave like a school of fish. The arrange themselves into a tight pack and swerve in unison, seeking safety in numbers. The newest bait is the idea that our food problems are not really food problems. They are poverty problems. I include myself in this school—note a recent column—and I join a pool of writers including Bittman and Tracie McMillian in highlighting the pressure of poverty on food choices.
And why not? There’s no doubt there’s a good reason to pursue the connection between poverty and poor eating habits. The correlation is clear and the reasons for the correlation fairly obvious, involving as it does matters of access, affordability, education, and—perhaps less obviously—a factor noted by both me and McMillian (see links above): the psychological consequences of scarcity.
That said, something about this emphasis makes me a little uncomfortable. The reason for this discomfort was recently clarified for me when I encountered the above menu in a trendy new Austin eating establishment. Click it and you’ll see that these meals are fancy. But they’re also weighed down with loads of carefully sourced but, still, unhealthy ingredients. The portion sizes, moreover, judging from the dishes being hauled out of the kitchen, were huge. Is there, I wondered, that much of a difference between a McDonald’s menu and this one? Every plate seemed to me to far outweigh (literally) my ideal meal as a teenager: Big Mac, shake, and fries.
By the looks of the place, the comparison might seem absurd. This is an upscale, architecturally-savvy lunch spot. Business casual dominated. Elegant women drank chardonnay. As I looked closer, though, I noticed that, while there were no morbidly obese people in the place, at least 2/3 of the people in the restaurant were carrying extra weight, in some cases a lot. Take away the sheen of sophistication, strip these well-heeled lunch goers bare, and you’d pretty much have a naked reflection of our national struggle to stay fit.
Heavy and unhealthy high-end food often gets a pass when the obesity-poverty card is played. I don’t think it should. The overweight people in this restaurant—it’s called St. Phillip for those who care (good veganized pie)—were overweight in the same way that the low-income consumers of fast food are overweight. Fat is fat and flesh is flesh. Should the fact that the St. Phillip’s crowd was better dressed, had top-notch health care, and can get thee to a fat farm if matters get out of hand exclude them from our meta-analysis of poor eating habits?
I don’t think it should. I’m not saying anyone should ditch the correlation between obesity and poverty, but I am saying we need to remember that as much as poverty leads to obesity, wealth can cover it up pretty well. Both a Big Mac and a $20 plate of homemade gourmet mac-n-cheese have the same impact on your body, at the day’s end.
Isn’t the fact that foodies feel compelled to write articles advising tribe members how not to sound snobby evidence that they are ipso facto snobs? I guess you could answer this question in the negative, suggesting that foodies get a bad rap, with their zeal for revitalized soil and apples picked by virgins being mistaken for elitism rather than plain old childlike enthusiasm.
But if the most recent investigation into how to “geek out over food without sounding like a snob” is any indication, I think there’s little doubt that foodies should dismiss all egalitarian pretenses and just own it: when it comes to the rarified pleasures of the palate, they’re better than us.
The author of this piece turned to her friends in the foodie trenches and asked them how to handle the ubiquitous snob label. Here are some samples of the answers (followed by a little commentary):
Kat Kinsman: “Why would you rob someone of their joy? Even if it’s not your bag, step outside of yourself for a second and ask them what it is that makes them love this particular ingredient, dish, restaurant, cuisine. You get to learn a little something about it and the person who loves it, and you get a chance to not make the world suck a little more for them.”
Commentary: I do step outside myself all the time, and I ask: why will this person eat broccoli that’s only locally grown and heirloom? And my answer is that, “she’s just engaging in the narcissism of small differences.” In other words, being a snob. And that doesn’t make the world suck for her. Hardly. Snobs LIKE being snobs.
Helen Rosner: “The only thing worse than actually writing or saying toothsome is being that jackass who points out that the word actually means “delicious,” not “al dente.”
Commentary: Isn’t this just an indirect way of being a snob while saying that you’re not? I mean, didn’t she just write “toothsome”?
Twilight Greenaway: “I eat a lot of mediocre homemade food when it’s served to me, because I believe that the intent behind sharing and cooking food comes first, and if people are made to feel comfortable doing it in the first place, then they might eventually seek out ways to use better ingredients/make it taste delicious.”
Commentary: Got it. So in fact there’s nothing snobby about nobly supping on mediocre food with the masses with the intention of curing them of their pedestrian palates in the long run. Culinary noblesse oblige? It lives.
Twilight Greenaway (again): “We might not all be able to eat at the next big restaurant, but most of us can learn to make a really amazing fritatta at home.” Commentary: Oh, super. Maybe we could even make that fritatta with leftovers from your latest big restaurant adventure? Pretty please?
Adam Roberts: “The key to not sounding like a food snob is acknowledging that food isn’t everyone’s thing; just like fashion isn’t everyone’s thing. If you don’t judge me for wearing old white socks with holes in them, I won’t judge you for eating that cheese sandwich from the gas station—even though it has mold on it and, really, who eats a cheese sandwich from the gas station?”
Commentary: none needed, really.
Cathy Erway: Whenever a food or ingredient that sounds esoteric comes up, I like to bring it back to my experience with handling it for the first time. Something like, yeah, and sunchokes are really sweet and less starchy than potatoes, so they make a really nice, golden crust when you roast them in no time!
Commentary: what am I, 5 years-old?
It’s pretty funny, all of this. But if these folks really want to purge the snobbery from their system they should have a conference at a Marriott and eat rubber chicken, lumpy potatoes, and canned vegetables. Oh wait, Bittman already squashed that idea. Last week, as he attended a tony foodie lovefest in up-the-Hudson-somewhere New York, he was asked by a reporter about the lavish accommodations and the $1400 ticket price to attend. Bittman answered:
“So what—we all meet in a Marriott?”
Next time you have a quorum of Food Movement reformers, try this: ask for a show of hands of those who want to see agriculture eliminate fossil fuel. I assure you that every hand will dart skyward.
The Food Movement’s defining mission, after all, is to farm without oil and gas. It embraces alternative fuel sources, most notably the sun, as essential to farming’s future. Notice how the movement never says it wants to pursue reduced fossil fuel consumption. To the contrary, our founding foodies want agriculture to make a total divestment before moving ahead. In the Food Movement’s idealized future there’s no room for Fossil Fuel Free Fridays.
This goal is appropriately righteous—eliminating fossil fuel from agriculture—and it’s one that I support. My reason for bringing it up here is not to critique the ambition per se but to use it as an essential backdrop to another position—a much more problematic one—that the Food Movement continues to endorse: meat consumption.
Despite overwhelming evidence that domesticated animals (cows most notably) are ecological disasters, the Food Movement refuses to banish them from the plate. In direct violation of its repeated call for sustainability, the movement avoids the radical but necessary stance (in contrast to its stance on fossil fuels) that there should be a total divestment from animal agriculture, beginning with cattle. In fact, it will often say something wishy-washy like “asking people to eat a plant-based diet seems unrealistic”—forgetting that farming without fossil fuel is a mountain to the vegan molehill.
Indeed, what makes this inconsistency so appalling is how much more realistic it is to achieve a plant-based diet than a full divestment from fossil fuel. One burden falls on the consumer—you and me—while the other falls on the producer—faceless and labyrinthian corporations that hold power levels we’ll never touch. Defenders of beef (and other forms of animal agriculture) will pontificate with rare grandiosity about the untapped promises of rotational grazing, waxing poetically about carbon sequestration, soil remineralization, and hoof action until your eyes roll back into your head. It’s a seductive story. But the alleged benefits are more rhetorical than practical. Making rotational grazing work consistently and as promised has proven to be as achievable as climbing Everest.
Look at it this way: rotational grazing is the moral equivalent of clean coal. The way that advocates of clean coal defend their product—namely, they say they are “sequestering carbon”—is really no different than the way advocates of rotational grazing defend beef—they say, alas, that they are “sequestering carbon.” But of course, the advocates of rotational grazing would be loath to accept the clean coal narrative (how do you think Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan feel about clean coal?). So why do they swoon and drool over the narrative of a clean steak? Why, when it comes to fossil fuel, does the movement think big but, when it comes to the steak on their plate, they compromise?